When it comes to foreign policy, Sen. Rand Paul has spent the last several years in Congress challenging his party's definition of what it means to be a Republican. Despite being from the party often thought of as the home of defense hawks and ballooning defense budgets, Paul has spent most of his tenure in the Senate challenging foreign-aid disbursements, the U.S. spy apparatus, and—in a defining 13-hour filibuster—where to draw the line on overseas drone strikes.
In recent months, as he has prepared for his presidential launch, Paul has attempted to soften his reputation as a scion of his father's hard-lined libertarianism. He has quieted calls to slash foreign aid and has publicly spoken out about the danger posed by the Islamic State if the United States does not take adequate steps to combat it. In the most recent Senate vote-a-rama, Paul introduced an amendment to boost defense spending by nearly $190 billion, something that would be offset by cutting foreign aid and spending to domestic agencies.
Putting Paul in a clearly marked box is difficult. But while Paul has appeared to move slightly to the middle on some issues, like military spending, his long-term record in the Senate still stands out against many GOP elders' records and frequently stands out against those he will be competing against in 2016.
Audit the Pentagon
While many in his party turn a blind eye when it comes to any spending that falls under the umbrella of the Pentagon, Paul has not always felt that way. In a speech in South Carolina, Paul reiterated his belief that, in addition to auditing the Fed, which has been a rallying cry of the libertarian wing of the GOP, he was prepared to audit the Pentagon.
Paul contended that his desire to audit the massive government entity did not spring from his frustration with defense spending. He argued defense spending was important for the country's security. Instead, Paul said that the annual defense-spending bill was jammed packed with "goodies" like research on rolled up beef jerky and a study to research "monkeys on meth."
"There is a lot of money being wasted in a $4 trillion budget," Paul said.
In January 2015, he introduced the Audit the Pentagon Act.
Cutting Foreign Aid, Yes Aid to Israel
In a proposed budget for 2012, Paul cut foreign aid to every country to save $500 billion. That included money to Israel. At the time, Paul's argument was that, while Israel remained a close ally, the United States simply did not have money to spend on other countries when it had a ballooning debt and deficit at home.
"Israel's ability to conduct foreign policy, regain economic dominance, and support itself without the heavy hand of U.S. interests and policies will only strengthen the Israeli community," Paul wrote in the budget document obtained by PolitiFact.
For Republicans running for president, however, unflinching support for Israel is an important box to check. As he has remained in the Senate, Paul has taken new opportunities to be on the record supporting Israel with the U.S. checkbook. He voted to increase funding for the Iron Dome project in 2014 and made news when he denied ever authoring a plan to roll back aid to the country.
Finally, he clarified that while he someday wants to eradicate all foreign aid, in the short term he still supported it for allies like Israel. He also introduced the "Stand with Israel Act of 2015," which would prohibit the United States from giving "assistance, loan guarantee, or debt relief to the Palestinian Authority." It also promises that the United States would not "engage in a war with Israel."
Banning Aid to Egypt
In July 2013, democratically elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown, and Paul saw an opportunity. Long opposed to dishing out foreign aid to countries that maintain dicey relationships with the United States, Paul advocated to halt the money the United States was giving to Egypt. After all, he argued, the United States was banned by law from handing out foreign aid to any country that had undergone a coup d'état anyway. The administration maintained the situation in Egypt did not rise to that level, but Paul pushed the issue, sponsoring the "Egyptian Military Coup Act of 2013." The bill got a vote on the floor, putting Paul at odds with some of the Senate's biggest backers of foreign aid, including Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Hawks in the Senate argued Paul's pursuit was misguided and ignored a critical function Egypt served in helping the United States defend Israel in the region. The measure, which would have directed the $1.5 billion in military aid to Egypt to be redistributed to build infrastructure in the United States, failed 86-to-13.
Repealing War Authorization for the Iraq War
At times, Paul's libertarian philosophy on foreign policy has not only set him apart from the party's establishment, it has allowed him to align with Democrats. Paul has tried not once, but multiple times to roll back the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force in Iraq, the legislation that gave the president the ability engage in a more than decade-long quagmire in the region. In November 2011, Paul got a vote on his plan to repeal the AUMF, but it failed 67-to-30, with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on the other side of his plan.
In January 2014, as sectarian violence in Iraq was escalating, Paul once again reintroduced his bill out of fear the war authorization in Iraq would be used once again to justify a prolonged U.S. occupation in the country. In order to prevent the Obama administration from potentially circumventing Congress and deploying troops, Paul introduced a bill—alongside six Democrats and two Republicans, Sen. Mike Lee and 2016 rival Sen. Ted Cruz—that repealed the 2002 authorization. Over the summer, just months after Paul introduced his bill, the administration once again stepped up military intervention in Iraq and conducted air strikes against a new enemy in the region—ISIS.
Declaring War on ISIS
In an effort to strike a middle ground on foreign policy, Paul introduced his own declaration of war against the Islamic State in December. The bill had no cosponsors, but it was an indication of how Paul intended to balance his more libertarian perspective with the reality of the threat posed by ISIS. Paul remained dubious of any administrative intervention without congressional approval and made it clear he thought it was important Congress weighed in.
"I believe the president must come to Congress to begin a war and that Congress has a duty to act. Right now, this war is illegal until Congress acts pursuant to the Constitution and authorizes it," Paul said in a statement in December.
To get the ball rolling, he wrote his own resolution that limited the use of ground forces and required an annual reauthorization. Then, he attempted to force a vote on it as an amendment to a bill on potable drinking water making its way through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The move allowed Paul to make it clear he supports intervention against ISIS, but it also allowed him to stand at odds with the Obama administration by arguing that intervention is only legitimate if it comes with a congressional seal of approval.
Standing Up Against Drone Strikes
It is perhaps the most significant moment in Paul's Senate career. Fueled by candy and with a little support from potential 2016 foes like Rubio and Cruz, Paul stood for more than 12 hours holding up the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan over a simple question. Does the United States have the authority to kill American citizens on U.S. soil with a drone?
The filibuster represented more, however, than an opposition to Brennan. The talkathon helped Paul reach a broad and diverse audience with a social-media campaign that carried the emblem #standwithrand, now part of his campaign rallying cry. For Paul, the March 2013 filibuster moved him from charismatic and quirky senator to a much more well-known leader who many saw as an advocate for civil liberties. It is a banner he will be expected to carry in upcoming months, even as he attempts to move more to the mainstream of his party's positions on foreign policy.